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What is the difference between pétanque, boules and bocce?

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3 Answers
Stephen R Ferg
Stephen R Ferg, author of several petanque blogs, including http://petanque.wordpress.com

“Petanque” and “boules” are two different names for the same game. In French, the word “boule” means “ball” and in France people often refer to the game simply as boules (pronounced BOOL). Outside of France the game is usually referred to as “petanque” (pronounced pay-TONK).

In the United States, more people play bocce than petanque, so when an American sees a group playing petanque, the first question that he is likely to ask— after: “What is that game?”— is: “What’s the difference between petanque and bocce?”

The two games are cousins. Bocce is Italian. Petanque is French. The rules of the games are similar, but the equipment and the way the games are played is different.

  • Petanque balls (boules) are made of steel. Competition-quality boules are hollow; cheaper “leisure” boules may be filled with sand. Bocce balls are solid. Traditionally they were made of wood, but nowadays they are usually made of hard epoxy resin.
  • Petanque balls are smaller than bocce balls.— think of an orange vs. a grapefruit, or a baseball vs. a softball… a really fat softball. A typical petanque boule is 73mm (just under 3″) in diameter, while a standard bocce ball is 107mm (4.2″).
  • Petanque balls also weigh less than bocce balls. A typical petanque boule weighs around 680g (1.5 lb), while a standard bocce ball weighs 920g (2 lbs).
  • Bocce balls are usually painted or colored in at least two different colors (one color for each team). Petanque boules are plain steel with different sets being indicated by different patterns of grooves (French: stries). Each player knows his own set by its pattern of grooves.
  • Because a bocce ball is relatively large and heavy, bocce is basically a rolling game, that is: a game in which players roll the balls toward the target. Because a petanque boule is smaller and lighter, petanque is a throwing game. This difference leads to a difference in the way balls are thrown in the two games. In both games, the ball is thrown “under arm” as in softball, and not “over arm” as in baseball. In bocce, a player throws rolls the ball “under handed” with the palm up, so that the ball rolls off of the fingers onto the court. In petanque, a player throws the ball “back handed” (the back of the hand is up) and with a backward flick of the wrist as the ball leaves the hand. This allows a player (if he wishes) to throw a very high lob, something that you will never see in bocce.
  • Although bocce can be played on a lawn or grassy area, serious bocce is played on a dedicated court or lane with a long, smooth surface enclosed by wooden sideboards. Some bocce courts are true works of art and things of beauty. Petanque, in comparison, can be played almost anywhere. In public parks, gravel walking paths and open areas of hard-packed dirt make excellent petanque playing grounds. In such spaces, the petanque terrain is considered “open”— there are no wooden sideboards; there aren’t even any out-of-bounds areas.
     In Europe, when a petanque club has its own dedicated boulodrome, the entire playing area is enclosed by sideboards, and it is subdivided into lanes by strings strung tightly between nails driven into the ground. There are no wooden sideboards between lanes.
  • Petanque and bocce courts are approximately the same width— 13 feet (4m)— but a bocce court is significantly longer than a petanque court. A world-championship petanque court is 50 feet (15m) long. Depending on who you ask, a standard or regulation bocce court may be 76 feet (23m) or 91 feet (28m).
  • Because of its size and its requirement for sideboards and a smooth surface, a bocce court is expensive to build and requires regular ongoing maintenance to stay playable. A petanque playing area (an outdoor boulodrome) costs much less to build and maintain— basically, about as much as a gravel pathway.
  • People sometimes ask: Can you play petanque on a bocce court? The answer is NO. The surface of most bocce courts is too smooth to be suitable for petanque. Even when the surface is suitable (e.g. hard-packed dirt) you should not play petanque on a bocce court— high lobs will rapidly destroy the nice smooth surface and ruin the court for the bocce players.

SOURCE: FAQs page at “All About Petanque” web site